the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘historical fantasy

These two books have nothing in common except I read them a few weeks ago, and never got around to writing a review of either one. But I want to write something about them before I forget them entirely. . .  this blog is, after all, my way of remembering the books that I have read.

 

So here are two super quick reviews of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker (2019), and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010).

 

Wait, wait, i just realized these books do have something in common – they both take place in historical fantasy settings. So there you go.

A paperback of Servant of the Underworld has been sitting on my bookshelf since I have no idea when.  My husband read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give it a try too. It was a little weird to get into, but once I got on board for the characters and the world, I was all in.  This is a historical fantasy that takes place in the Aztec Empire in the 1400s. The main character, Acatl, is the high priest of the dead, and he does all this very cool stuff with literally going to the land of the dead, keeping the guardians of the dead in the land of the dead, where they belong. He has a strained relationship with his brother, who is a famous soldier.  Acatl’s younger sister, a priestess in training, keeps trying to get the brothers to reconcile. A strange murder takes place, and if Acatl gets drawn into the investigation. It’s so easy to blame the woman who hated the dead woman, but that would be a literal cop-out.  Acatl knows there is something more going on here.

 

I enjoyed this book, a lot.  It is fast paced and I loved the characters.  There is this underlying subplot that Acatl actually isn’t a very good head priest.  He doesn’t make the effort to get to know the other men who work at the Temple, he’s a total introvert. I also liked learning about his relationship with his brother, and their history.  Did Acatl join the priesthood to avoid becoming a warrior? Is his life’s work as worthy as what his brother does? There are not that many novels that deal with adult siblings who are still trying to get past their differences, I found that plot element refreshing.  the magic is also hella cool!

 

I liked this book enough to buy the sequel.  If you are a fan of historical mysteries, and/or urban fantasy mysteries, you’ll probably like Servant of the Underworld.  I’m kicking myself that I’ve had this book on my shelf for how many years? And i just now read it?

 

I received a review copy of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker.  This was a fun read, and there is this delicious twist at the end that made the book impossible to put down for the last 80 pages or so.  Parker is known for snark and unreliable narrators, so if you enjoy that style, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

 

The main character, Orhan, is a military engineer.  He’s also of a minority ethnic group. His unit trusts his engineering skills implicitly, and they basically go around the empire building and fixing bridges and roads, and making the sure the infrastructure is always in good enough condition so that the rest of the armed forces can get to wherever they need to go. War with neighboring Empires is ongoing and endless, to the point where border villages can’t keep track of what their nationality is.

 

When the city is under siege from the enemy,  Orhan decides to take his Engineering corps to the city and build up their defences.  As it happens, Orhan also has plenty of black market friends there, giving him the ability to forge documents, print money, and generally get shit done faster than any honest military man.  Before he knows is, Orhan takes literal control of the city. And really, all he wants to do is backwards engineer the enemy’s war engines, and see if his crazier engineering ideas will work.  As someone with the mind of an engineer, i got a chuckle out of his crew’s commentary on the insanity of trebuchets.

 

I mentioned that Orhan is of an ethnic minority. By the end of the book, everyone in the City knows his name, but very few people know what he looks like. There is a scene where he is resting by a fountain after a battle, and a guard comes up to him and basically says “get away from that fountain, that’s for blue people only”, and Orhan apologizes and backs away.  That scene did just about kill me.

 

People who are most likely to enjoy Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City are people who have read very little, or no Parker titles before.  First person POV, snark, sarcasm, banter, unreliable narrators, twist at the end, that is what Parker does. That seems to be all that Parker does.  This novel was fun, but it was also predictable. It was a beach read. Did I enjoy the banter, laugh at the snark, and appreciate the twist?  Yes. I did.  But still, this book felt like every other Parker book I’ve ever read.

 

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Mightier Than the Sword, by K.J. Parker

published June 30, 2017

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Subterranean Press!)

 

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Recently out from Subterranean Press is K.J. Parker’s newest stand alone novella, Mightier than the Sword.  Parker fans will delight in the dry humor, banter, and plot twists of this fast paced story, while readers new to the Parker style may be left scratching their heads a bit yet at the same time itching to read the book again.  At 130 pages and mostly action and dialog, this novella can easily and happily be devoured in an afternoon.

 

Presented as a translation of a historical document from a nation that never existed, the environments presented here could be ancient Rome, could be early Britain, could be anywhere in between. The story may be fast paced, but it takes place  in a time when communication was as fast as the horse under the messenger and a two week journey in a wagon barely got you across the country.

 

Our unnamed narrator, the nephew of the Empress, is given a mission to discover just what the hell has been happening to the monasteries at the border of the country. Harried by pirates, burnt by raiders, no survivors, and hardly anything of worth has been stolen.  Is the empress trying to get one more heir killed? Is she trying to get him out of the capitol for some reason?  But off he goes on his errand, but not before proposing marriage to the woman he loves, after purchasing a house for them to live in and a doctor to save her life.

 

His rounds to the monasteries is also a convenient excuse to visit relatives he hasn’t seen since childhood.  Nobles who piss off the royal court can’t exactly be banished or excommunicated, so monasteries seem as good a prison for them as any other place – it’s cold,  boring, and out of the way. The abbots and abbesses tell our narrator who they think he can trust (no one), and what they think they know about who the raiders might be. Our narrator, wisely, pays close attention to what everyone says and  stays quiet about the knowledge he collects.  He has money to buy whatever he needs along the way, but more often than not, knowledge is of far greater value than coin.

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Collaborative, competitive, serialized, and interactive, Archipelago is part choose-your-own adventure, part screw-your-neighbor, and part stay-tuned!   What started out as a joint Patreon complete with enforced writing exercise has turned into what could be the next big thing in serialized fiction.  Created by Charlotte Ashley, Kurt Hunt, and Andrew Leon Hudson, Archipelago is a historical fantasy with Lovecraftian flavors. Members vote on where they want the story to go, and the authors have to go in that direction!

A few teaser intro episodes are  publicly available on their Patreon, check out The Ur-Ring by Charlotte Ashley, In Extremis by Andrew Leon Hudson, and Whatsoever is New by Kurt Hunt.  Here’s the homepage of their Patreon, where you can learn more.

I’ve been intrigued by this project since the moment I heard about it,  so I was super thrilled when the authors agreed to do a panel interview with me.  I set up a shared document on Google Drive, put in some open ended questions, and let them take the wheel!   But before we get to that, let’s learn a little about these amazing and creative writers:

Andrew Leon Hudson is an English writer, editor and designer based in Europe, a ten-year resident of Madrid with the local vocabulary of an introverted three-year-old at best. He is only now coming to terms with the stunning moment of culture shock that came with realising Sir Francis Drake – one of England’s great naval heroes, especially famed for his victory over the Spanish Armada – is viewed in his chosen home as nothing but a despicable pirate. He became involved with the Archipelago project as a way of working through this nautical trauma, and you can track his general therapeutic progress at https://andrewleonhudson.wordpress.com/.

Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, bookseller, and reckless thrillseeker whose stories are all mostly true. Since moving to Toronto, Canada, she has dabbled in the arts of fencing, parkour, capoeria, and LARPing, applying the lessons learned to her skill at writing rollicking swashbuckling adventures. Her stories have appeared in F&SF, PodCastle, the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and numerous anthologies. She has been nominated for both the Sunburst and Aurora Awards, and once wrote and performed a science fiction musical from the equipment of a CrossFit gym. You can learn more about her at http://once-and-future.com/ or on Twitter @CharlotteAshley

Kurt Hunt was formed in the swamps and abandoned gravel pits of post-industrial Michigan. At 17, he fell in love and moved into a shabby Chicago apartment instead of that fancy school he planned to attend, a decision that convinced him that the best things in life cannot be planned but must instead be conjured through a combination of good luck and poor impulse control. His fiction has been published at Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and PodCastle, among others, and he co-edited the 2016 “Up and Coming” anthology of writers eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You can follow Kurt on twitter at @SonitusSonitus .

and with that, let’s get to the panel!

Andrea Johnson: How did the three of you come up with the concept for Archipelago? What were your brainstorming sessions like?

Charlotte Ashley: It started out as a simple shared Patreon, then spun out of control. Andrew and I decided to do a shared world with a lot of interactivity and we realized pretty quickly that we had a similar vision of how this would work out. We invited Kurt on board and he “got it” instantly as well.

We brainstormed through Google Hangouts – it was a lot of “Oh! Oh! We could do this!” “Yes, omg, and then this!” We wanted a format that allowed as much autonomy as possible, with leeway for adding new things on a continual basis. As our characters discover the world, we’re discovering it as well.

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illusion paula volskyIllusion by Paula Volsky

published in 1992

where I got it: paperback swap

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If Robin Hobb wrote a mash-up of Les Miserables, Downton Abbey, and Memoirs of a Geisha, she might end up with something like Paula Volsky’s Illusion. Magic meets a society in turmoil, in which a bloody revolution is followed by chaos, all told from the point of view of a incredibly sheltered young woman.

 

Raised in wealth and privilege in the outer provinces, Eliste vo Derrivalle knows she’s above the common people. Because of course she is, she’s Exalted. A class above the wealthy and prosperous, the Exalted have a natural magic, and naturally, all other people exist to serve the Exalted. It’s not Eliste’s fault she’s been raised to believe this. Not only is it the culture in which she was raised, it is the culture of the entire Kingdom.

 

Shortly after the opening chapters, Eliste and her maid travel to the capital, where she is to live with her aunt and learn the finer qualities of being a noble lady. She’s been chosen to be a lady in waiting (of sorts) to the Queen. Being a lady in waiting is more along the lines of servitude, and accepting gifts and favors usually requires something in return. Eliste is so damn naive and in denial of what’s happening around her, that it is nearly tragically comic.

 

While Eliste is enjoying champagne and leftover pastries for lunch with the other ladies, a revolution is brewing. The second half of the novel takes a very dark turn, with a revolutionary leader whose fervor for a new world is only matched by his paranoia, and magical mechanical creatures that no one can control.

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break the demon gateYamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, by Richard Parks

published in 2014

where I got it: purchased new

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Historical fiction about a time and place I don’t know much about combined with mystery, ghosts, demons, and political intrigue? Sign me up. As much as I love my space opera and low fantasy, I grew up reading historical fiction, and historical works have a very special place in my heart. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Richard Parks’ short stories, so I was curious to read one of his novels.

 

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks takes place in 11th century Japan.  Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman, lately welcomed at the palace compound, but since the loss of Princess Teiko, he has avoided crossing paths with the nobility.  What was the secret she was willing to die for? Was someone blackmailing her? And the larger concern is the safety of her son, Emperor Takahito. The power of the Fujiwara clan is rising, how far will they go to ensure one of their own sits upon the throne?

 

(quick language lesson: Monogatari translates to story, tale, or narrative)

 

The opening chapters of To Break the Demon Gate are just beautiful. Characters send metaphor laden poetry back and forth to each other, and this art of courtly poetry was a real thing in the court of the Heian period. Inflection, rhythm, symbology, and how it all came together in a very short verse was just as important as the information carried therein.  Many of the poems are explained, but I enjoyed trying to figure out the symbology before Yamada explained it to me. Colorful poetry aside, this was a very formal environment, with no room for public displays of affection. In these early chapters, it is implied that Yamada and Princess Teiko have a history, but exactly what that history is is never spe Read the rest of this entry »

Firebrand, by Gillian Philip

published February of 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tor!)

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I wanted to write a formal review of Firebrand. I tried to. Really, I did. But nothing I typed was conveying anything I wanted to say. Thus,  this post is more emotional reaction than formal-ish review. Shit happens.

I’m having a tough time coming up with words to describe Firebrand. Words like wonderful and amazing and stunning just aren’t going to do it this time. What’s the word for the taste of a late summer heirloom tomato warmed by the sun? What’s the word for that feeling in your chest when listening to a beautiful piece of music, and the groundedness of the cello and tympani reverberates right through you and reminds you who you are? That word for wanting to trap perfect moments forever in amber, so you can watch the sunlight get caught in them?  Those. those are the words I need for Firebrand. The last book that made me feel this way was The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  I felt like I was waking up.

Philip effortlessly reached into the recesses of my mind, found the story I most wanted to hear, and then she put it on paper. I was addicted in the first few pages, and the book only got better. Everything you think a fantasy about fae creatures is, everything you expect, throw all of that out the window, right now. Firebrand is something new.

Instead of prattling on and on about the plot, I’m going to tell you the most important thing, and the thing that bound me instantly to Firebrand: Seth MacGregor idolizes his older half-brother Conal.  The first time we meet Seth, he’s readying himself to murder his brother.

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Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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Under Heaven begins with haunting desolation, visits with imperial opulence, and then finds a sort of balance between them. A fitting journey, as the philosophies of the culture of Kitai focuses on balance in life, balance in all things.

In the western wildernesses of a fictional Tang Dynasty China known as Kitai, Shen Tai honors his late father by spending the requisite mourning period at the battleground, burying the dead of both sides, treating all he comes across with dignity and respect.  A Kitai Princess gives Tai a large gift of precious horses for his work at the battleground.  Understand, that horses are rare in Kitai, and that a man who owns two hundred and fifty of them could easily be seen as wealthier than the Emperor.

Tai’s first challenge is to get home alive. His next challenge is to survive the intrigue and subtleties of the court, where a man can be exiled, or worse, for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or having their poetry misinterpreted. Their courtly traditions may seem formal and cold  to Western eyes, but it’s these traditions that have kept Kitai powerful and strong through the generations that shaped it.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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